Forty Days Revisited, Day 7–Withdrawing from the World

One of the things I am discovering is that I live in a constant state of grace. I wish I realized it more often, but I am grateful when I do. This evening I was bombarded by a barrage of peoples’ demands, pounding away one me with brutality I nearly buckled under. I completed one project, one demand, while two or three others took its place. I finally gave up on it all. Anything I hadn’t finished by 10:00 p.m wasn’t going to get done; my mental capacity had long since deserted me, I was running on fumes. I had gotten my jammies on, brushed my teeth and prepared to dive under the covers, perhaps never to emerge from them. Just as I was about to sink into bed, I remembered I hadn’t written my blog for the day. Oh no! (That isn’t actually what I said, and while the whole giving up swearing for Lent hadn’t gone well, I won’t repeat what I really said, especially since this is mostly a family-friendly blog.) It was then that I remembered that I could, once again, revisit a previous post. My spirit gave me the number (corresponding to which of the 40 days I would select from) almost immmediately, and when I pulled up the post, it was exactly what I needed to read. And so hear for your enjoyment, from “Forty Days,” my original Lenten blog, a post from Day 17 titled, “Stealing Away.”

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Forty Days, Day 17–Stealing Away

The other morning I got to thinking about how challenging it is to find the time, to make the time for quiet reflection and prayer. In truth, prayer should be no farther away than the speed of thought; it only takes a moment to close your eyes and draw a deep, calming breath, and say “Thank you” to God, a higher power, even your own higher self. But to break away, steal away from the myriad things pulling at you from all directions, and take intentional time for deeper prayer and reflection is an entirely different matter.

One of the themes that runs through the various stories of Jesus’ days of ministry is about this notion of stealing away to create time and space to commune with God? Nature? His inner spirit? In a number of places throughout the New Testament we see things like, “And he withdrew to a quiet place to pray…” And why not? Throughout much of his daily life our friend Jesus was surrounded by people. Like, 24/7. And not simply surrounded by random people; the vast majority of them wanted something from him. And not only did they want something from him, often what they wanted was the type of interaction that was literally going to drain energy from him. Whether it was preaching to and teaching mass gatherings, or interacting with people in smaller more intimate settings, all the praying for people and laying hands on them, healing them, raising them from the dead–I imagine all that drained a whole lot out of him. No wonder he needed to withdraw to a quiet place to pray.

As a relatively introverted person, just spending nine hours a day in meetings or conversations with small groups of people is exhausting. Now that my kids are grown and out of the house I can completely decompress. My dog is the only one who needs my attention and she’s not much of a conversationalist and very much less a drain than interacting with yet one more human would be. I don’t have 1/1000th of the human contact that Jesus did (though he didn’t have to contend with email, the internet, Facebook, or any other social media drains) and yet I often feel the need for quiet and refueling of my spirit.

What I’m coming to understand, however, is that simply removing myself from the presence of people is not enough. Sitting quietly is not enough. Jesus took three distinct steps, as best I can tell: (1) he withdrew, (2) he went to a quiet place, and (3) he prayed. I have the withdrawing part down reasonably well, though to truly withdraw would, I believe, involve no outside stimulus–no television, no phone, no internet (and therefore no blog…I have to figure that one out), a true withdrawal. I have heard Buddhist colleagues, or those who practice serious meditation, talk about their first experiences with silent retreats. While it makes sense to me that extraverted people would get antsy with all that sitting still and focusing on the breath, my guess is that introverts also have their share of struggles getting lost in thoughts, feelings, and other sensations.

When I think about silent retreats (I have yet to be brave enough to participate in one) part of me thinks, “How heavenly!” Another part of me thinks, “How terrifying!” While I have no doubt that the reality would be some where in the middle, a part of me longs for and seeks quiet and solitude that I have so little of in my current existence. In these days of instantaneous information and 24/7 availability to bosses and coworkers–even as I’ve been writing this my email has beeped in several times–the idea of (1) withdrawing and (2) intentionally seeking out a quiet place is pretty appealing. But I must make the time to steal away from all the distractions of my daily life.

I remember confessing this once to an extraverted city-girl friend of mine I knew from back in my days in the church. She scrunched up her face and said, “Girl, you don’t need to be out there communing with squirrels!” To say that she didn’t get me would be an understatement. I could have retorted that Jesus withdrew for 40 days and 40 nights, and while I don’t think there are desert squirrels, he certainly spent time away from people, from civilization for over a month. Perhaps the people in his day thought he was crazy too.

The third piece of the process after withdrawing and finding a quiet place is to engage in intentional prayer, meditation, contemplation, reflection. This third act is just as difficult if not more so than the first two. Many times in the past few years I have been able to withdraw to a quiet place–one of my favorite was tucked in a small wooded are overlooking the San Francisco Bay. Unfortunately, I haven’t lived in California for nearly three years and so my withdrawals into natural settings have been extremely limited since then. But even as I sat at the park looking out at the water, listening to the wind in the trees and the lapping of the surf against the rocks, even though I had withdrawn to a quiet place, I could not pray, at least not in a traditional sense.

In some ways, my breath was the prayer, my attuning with the life around and in me was itself a prayer. And even though I was in need of conversation with God about the many challenges I was facing and the issues troubling me, I made no petitions or requests during that time. I did not meditate in the strict sense of focusing on my breath or on any particular state, internal or external. My prayer was to drink in the beauty all around me, feeling and expressing gratitude for all of life, and let it refresh and restore me. No words needed.

Now I live in a different place; one that’s a bit less conducive to withdrawing and it’s not easy finding a quiet, natural place. So I must learn to create a space within my own home to which I can withdraw and perhaps pray. It will have quite a different feel to it than my spot by  the Bay, but it’ll worth the effort to create the quiet. The task now is to create the time and steal away

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